Unlikely success stories follow the Mad Max franchise around like a deranged car chase, and this trend goes all the way back to 1980. Forty years ago this year, Mad Max arrived in the United States after its strong initial run in Australia a year earlier. The dystopian epic would go on to captivate audiences all over the world and set a new record at the box office. Oh, and kick off a new tone for action films that would last an entire decade.
The humble origins of the Mad Max saga trace back to George Miller, who at one point was an ER doctor working in Sydney, Australia. His experience treating victims of car crashes would never really leave him—hint, hint—and after a decade of learning the craft of film with Byron Kennedy and eventually James McCausland, Miller and his buddies would put some creative fundraising to good use in the production of Mad Max. Miller’s goal was simple: to create a genre film with the frenetic action and simplistic narrative of a silent movie, but with sound and modern special effects.
Due to their low budget of just $350,000, the filmmaking team had to rely on mostly unknown actors (Mel Gibson wasn’t a household name in America yet). And more than a few corners had to be cut to save money, like having many of the characters wear vinyl instead of actual leather outfits. But the film pulled zero punches when it came to the stunt work and editing, which is what would truly draw audiences into yet another movie with fancy car chases and ultra-violence.
The result? A massive box office success story that would spawn three sequels, the most recent being considered by many (including me) to be one of the finest action films ever made. But how well did the original Mad Max do at the box office compared to today’s movies?
Crunching The Numbers
By 1991, Mad Max officially held the Guinness World Record for “the highest box office to budget ratio of any motion picture.” This is because it grossed $100 million worldwide off of a budget of just $350,000. Adjusting for inflation, that means Mad Max cost about $1.1 million to make and went on to gross $313.2 million worldwide.
Let’s put that into perspective. This type of box office return would be like the 2017 movie Pattie Cake$ making the same amount of money as John Wick: Chapter 3 (it didn’t). We typically only see low budget horror movies like Unfriended and Paranormal Activity pulling off massive returns like this, not apocalyptic action thrillers based on brand-new IP.
Strangely enough, Mad Max didn’t do all that well in American theaters compared to other countries. But it would quickly become a cult favorite once new fans found it on TV and home video. The initial theatrical run featured heavy redubs to change Australian lingo and accents, but MGM eventually re-released the film with the original dialogue in 2000, so Americans could see the real deal for the first time in theaters.
By the time American audiences were finally catching up to Mad Max and all its glory, Miller already had the sequel lined up with about $4 million to spend this time, making The Road Warrior one of the largest budgets in Australia’s film history. And let’s not forget Mad Max: Fury Road, which grossed $374.7 million worldwide decades later in 2015 and received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (it won six of its ten nominations).
Next up is Mad Max: Furiosa, which is based on one of the new scripts Miller had been dreaming up with Brendan McCarthy while working on Fury Road. The film reportedly entered production right before everyone hit pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Anya Taylor-Joy has already auditioned for a key role. If film production can ramp back up by next year, we might see yet another Mad Max movie return to the big screen by 2022.